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Articles by Dennis Doyle

What kind of doublespeak is that?

Sometimes I feel heartfelt compassion for the very difficult job of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Many citizens and not just a few commercial entities demand endless access to the resources of the Chesapeake, while the wise conservation and management of these resources are the sole responsibility of DNR.
    The blue crab is one such resource. One of the more desired, the more profitable and most celebrated of the Bay’s treasures, it has also been over the last 20 years or so one of the Bay’s species most often in trouble. I sympathize with the pressures the Department has to constantly endure in attempting to protect the crustacean from over harvest and depredation.
    Then, DNR destroys my empathy with pronouncements that seem to defy credibility, common sense and logic.
    On a recent occasion, officials stated for the record on a local radio program and in a subsequent newspaper article that any form of moratorium would cause the species more harm than good.
    That ranks up there with the Department’s earlier statement “crabbing harvests remain at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year,” while revealing the blue crab population had plunged 70 percent also during that period.
    Is that not doublespeak? DNR’s own safe harvest levels imply proper population protection that has obviously not been happening. In the case of “more harm than good,” how can not killing some 30,000 pounds of crabs hurt the overall population?
    Unlike the successful rockfish moratorium, a crab moratorium wouldn’t work for several reasons, according to DNR: the short life of crabs (three years or so); the diminishing fertility of females over time; and the increased natural mortality of cannabilistic crabs when the population is dense. DNR also cites the economic harm to Maryland’s blue crab industry.
    I can understand the Department’s reluctance. Every cutback affects the livelihoods of not only 4,000-plus watermen but also the bottom line of many restaurants and seafood markets. But don’t try to tell me that continuing to kill off a resource is really helping it.
    I can understand unpredictable natural mortality and how cold-weather kills and how poor recruitment causes unanticipated short-range population swings. But to continue to allow optimistically calculated harvest levels year after year while that population free falls defies common sense.
    The near future looks grim for the blue crab. Local crabbers report very difficult catches, fewer and smaller crabs and a continuing dearth of females, indicating more population trouble for the future. This assessment is not scientific, but it seems to reflect reality better than anything coming out of Annapolis.
    I respectfully request the Department reconsider its basic resource philosophy because whatever we have been doing is not working.
    Insisting on species health and abundance above all seems wiser and more realistic than any maximum-sustainable harvest policy by any name.
    Paying closer attention to the recommendations of scientists from Bay conservation foundations could also be wise, as they are free from most political and commercial manipulations.
    That is if Maryland officials are committed to the conservation of the blue crab and share the belief that a consistently large and healthy population will naturally result in a flourishing commercial fishery, a satisfied recreational sector and a happy consuming public.
    If, on the other hand, our representatives are primarily committed to short-term commercial-industry stability — fulfilling market and political demands — then we’re on the right track.

Live-line a spot

     We started our drift with just a touch of worry. The tide was falling faster and the wind, in the same direction at about 12 knots, was pushing up some uncomfortable waves. Hooking one of our few bait spot just in front of its dorsal fin and dropping it over the side, I was not confident.
    “I’m not sure this is going to work out,” I said to my buddy Moe. “That’s one of the joys of no Plan B,” he answered. “Keeps things simple. If it doesn’t, we go home.”
    By dropping the motor into reverse from time to time, we slowed the drift and kept our baits reasonably close to the boat. Monitoring our fish finder, I called out the occasional marks as they passed under us. We stuck with this routine for an hour with no success.
    “Looks like they stopped eating, ” I said.
    We had gotten two fish in the mid-20s earlier in the day. Then nothing. Until the fish finder screen lit up with a solid mass of hard arches from five feet down all the way to the bottom, some 20 feet below.
    “Get ready,” I warned. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now.”
    At once, something took my bait and moved off.
    “Got a run,” I said.
    “Me too,” Moe replied.
    A few seconds later, I put my reel into gear. When the line came tight, I set the hook. My rod bent over down to the corks, and line peeled out. I heard my friend grunt up in the bow and out of the corner of my eye I saw him struggling with a hard-pulling fish.

Live-Lining: August’s Best Bet
    Right now, live-lining spot is one of the deadliest methods on the Chesapeake to seduce big rockfish onto your hook. The better fish are still mostly holding in small schools in open water cruising for baitfish, making conditions ideal for dropping a live spot down into their midst.
    Getting the bait is the biggest problem. The most desirable Norfolk spot — from three to five inches — are scarce. Perhaps last year’s fingerlings, which would be the proper size right now, were victims of our hard winter. Or perhaps it was just a disastrous spawn in 2013. For whatever reason, right-sized baits have been hard to catch this season.
    Lucky for me, the sports store where I work part-time has a consistent supply, and I have taken full advantage. But this morning when we swung by on the way to Sandy Point at 7am, they were almost all gone. We only managed to score a few.

Don’t Count Your Fish until It’s Boated
    It took five long and intense minutes until I had one big beautiful striper showing on the surface some 10 feet away. I reached for the net. The fish, however, took one last hard run — and the hook pulled. I watched that heavyweight vanish back into the depths.
    Soon Moe’s fish was alongside, and I did get that one in the net. It measured over 34 inches, fat and healthy, the virtual twin of the fish I had just lost. We ran back up current and dropped again over the school, managing a 32-inch prize into the boat. That limited us out for the day, and just in time. We were out of spot.
 

Sweet fish swim in sweetwater

     Rockfish, bluefish, perch, spot and croaker dominate the summertime fishing news when it comes to recreational species in Maryland. But almost half of all the fishing licenses sold by Maryland Department of Natural Resources are purchased by sweet-water anglers.
    We have at least as many largemouth bass anglers as any other group of devotees. They have a considerable number of bass-specific waters to choose from. The lakes, ponds and impoundments harboring bucketmouths in Maryland number over 100. Most host good populations of sizable bass plus their numerous cousins: the bluegill, crappie, perch and pickerel.
    The headwaters of the Chesapeake and up into the Susquehanna River also provide great bass fishing, as do the higher reaches of the notable big tribs such as the Choptank, the Monocacy, the Potomac and the Pocomoke among at least 25 others listed in DNR inventories. All are prime, non-tidal, large-mouth destinations.
    Trout fishers also swell the ranks of freshwater habitués. Their opportunities are considerable as well. The upper Gunpowder is a blue-ribbon tailwater trout stream. The low temperatures from the regulated water flow of the Prettyboy Dam have resulted in a self-sustaining native trout stream that provides excellent fishing.
    Other trout waters, such as the Savage River (excellent), the Youghiogheny River (almost as good) and the well-rated Casselman as well as another 50 recognized trout streams provide considerable stretches of fishable streamside.
    Jabez Branch off Severn Run is the only self-sustaining native brook-trout fishery in the state, though these gorgeous fish are also released in the Gunpowder and Savage.
    Surprisingly, Baltimore’s Patapsco River births two great trout fishing locations, a three-mile stretch below the Daniels Dam and the Avalon area in Elkridge.
    Over 200 publicly accessible sweet-water environs provide excellent habitat for a multitude of species including brown trout, brook trout and rainbows as well as largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass, walleye pike, chain pickerel, muskellunge, northern pike, yellow perch, black crappie, white crappie, warmouth, bluegill and red-ear sunfish plus flathead and channel catfish.
    Now we can add to that considerable list the infamous and storied snakehead. This invasive reputedly has an excellent table quality. It fights, too, taking top-water lures (especially frog imitations fished among the lily pads) with an extreme violence that has to be experienced to be appreciated. The Potomac River offers the best chances of tangling with these guys.
    Another introduced species — long available just about everywhere there is a body of water — is the common carp. A food staple of Asia, this fish has an established fan base including, most recently, fly anglers. Maryland has also recently added the blue catfish to their list of piscatorial interlopers. Both the carp and the blue cat can approach 100 pounds, which translates into some epic battles. Those who know how to prepare them for the table harvest quantities of excellent eating.
    So if saltwater fishing on the Chesapeake is becoming discouraging there are other options. To loosely paraphrase Bill Waterson’s Calvin character in his memorable last installment, “It’s a wonderful sweetwater world out there. Maybe it’s time to go exploring.”

When fishing is good it is very good; When it is bad, it’s still pretty good

     I’ve suddenly run into a problem I haven’t had in quite some time. I’m having the devil’s own time catching good rockfish. During the long lulls between bites, an explanation has emerged for my difficulties and disappointments.
    I blame it all on last season. Last season was phenomenal. Big fish in quantities rarely seen around the mid-Bay remained all the way through the year. I could rise at 9am, get on the water by 10am and most always have my limit of 10-pounders by noon.
    Last year, the chum bite was astoundingly effective until late June, when live-lining took over and was even better. This year is developing much differently. The schools of big fish that settled all around the mid-Bay are gone.
    Chumming is already dropping off. Live-lining has not developed, what with the dearth of small spot and rockfish being both scarcer and more finicky.
    My attempts to find them where I did last season have wasted a lot of fishing time. Likewise, my insistence on behaving as if they would eventually show up has led more poor performances than I would like to admit.
    Sticking to my schedule of rising late and still expecting to find good fish is proving to be another major error. The summertime heat is apparently shutting down the bite after 10am. My unreasonable expectations (again, based on last season) are causing me unnecessary emotional trauma.
    A smaller quantity of rockfish and the many anglers searching for them means that to be successful one must achieve ideal conditions, fishing better times of day and night plus making it a priority to find where the fish are located. Wait for them to come to you, and they most likely won’t.
    The few rockfish frequenting last year’s traditional locations do not remain long once discovered. Avoid areas of high fishing pressure to get fish in the box.
    In other areas that have proven productive in the past, stripers gather during the dark, quiet hours to feed but flee as soon as the sun rises or boats arrive. Being the first to fish any particular structure or holding area counts.
    To catch fish consistently this year, you’ll want to start very early or very late. I’m talking about being on the water nearer 5am or starting at sundown and fishing into the night. You will encounter more fish at these times, and when you do find them they are much more likely to take your bait or lure.
    If you’re fishing structure by casting or drifting baits, sound discipline is critical, especially in shallow water. Consider electric power or turning off your engine while working an area. Another good tactic is to sit quietly and do nothing for a good five minutes after arriving at the location you intend to fish. You’ll be surprised at the results.
    Fewer fish are in residence this year. The stripers that are here are under heavy pressure, spooked and uncooperative. Anglers will have to be at the top of their game and using every trick in their arsenal when pursuing them.
    On the Chesapeake, when fishing is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it’s still pretty good.

Blue crabs at quarter-century low

     The 2013 Chesapeake Bay blue crab harvest was the lowest in 25 years. The 2014 numbers look to be at least as bad, perhaps worse.
    How could this happen?
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources has had some of its best scientists and managers working to conserve this keystone species, one of the most revered (and consumed) in Maryland.
    Despite this concentration of talent and effort, the female blue crab population has decreased by 80 percent within the last decade. Thus, the overall population of blue crabs has fallen to the edge of collapse once again.
    Officially the crisis has been blamed on unforeseen environmental factors such as severe cold, natural predators, parasites, unusual weather and unpredictable ocean currents. Those forces do inevitably impact the overall population of our blue crab.
    But there is one reliable and utterly controllable tool available to resource managers that can ultimately protect the population levels: varying female crab harvests and, in particular, the commercial female crab harvest, as the recreational harvest of females is already prohibited.
    Almost 20 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation began a vigorous campaign to reduce the female blue crab harvest, arguing that females were critical to the health of the species. The immediate results were death threats to some of the staff and the burning of a Foundation education center.
    When decisions have to be made that can affect the commercial fishing industry and the livelihoods of individuals, emotions can run high. Nothing came of the campaign to protect the female crabs. The harvest continued unabated.
    The blue crab population subsequently collapsed to a declared federal crisis level by 2008. DNR finally had to acknowledge that the female crab harvest levels were based on flawed science: Female Chesapeake blue crabs do not spawn just once in their lifetimes; many spawn multiple times.
    The ecological emergency had one positive effect: Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia began cooperating to rebuild the depleted species. Unprecedented protection for the females was put in place by all. The result was an extraordinary and rapid resurgence in blue crab numbers. Within two or three years, the population rebounded to pre-crisis levels.
    Unfortunately, so then did the resumption of the commercial female crab harvest — with predictable results.
    We are in crisis again. This recurring situation is a strong clue that officials charged with the management of the blue crab have failed to account for unanticipated and uncontrollable mortality events that inevitably happen in a large, open ecosystem like the Chesapeake. We have continued to harvest too many crabs, especially females.
    Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a 2014 Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Advisory Report urging minimizing risks to crab populations by immediately protecting juvenile female blue crabs while state agencies consider future changes to regulations to rebuild the population.
    The Foundation also called for creating sanctuaries in different parts of the Bay to further protect females; improving on the accountability and reporting of both commercial and recreational harvests; and moving agency management review cycles to better (and more promptly) respond to natural population fluctuations.
    Part of the problem remains unaddressed: How to rebuild blue crab numbers and maintain the population of both males and females at a healthy level without hurting the incomes of the many hard-working watermen that bring them to market.
    Assuming Maryland intends to continue the unofficial policy of providing stability to the commercial crabbing industry, some mechanism other than the exploitation of the blue crab had better be devised.

Fish recipes from the Chesapeake

Catching a fish from the Chesapeake leads to a seafood dinner beyond the reach of most mortals. The fish has come directly from your own hand. It is fresher than anything available to those not thus connected to the water. Freshness is really the defining quality, the gold standard, of seafood cuisine: same-day catch to table. Buying fish from even the best seafood markets will net a catch that is at its freshest three days old: a day from catch to the dock; another day from wholesaler to retailer, then a day (at the least) to the purchaser and to home. As to later than three days, keep in mind the old Benjamin Franklin dictum: “After three days, a fish and a house guest begin to smell.” Rockfish, the most treasured fish of the Bay, is not at all difficult to prepare. It is a dense, white-fleshed creature that responds exceptionally to herbs and spices, assuming they are not overdone. The distinctly fine flavor of striped bass can be easily overwhelmed, which is why my favorite recipe is simplicity itself. Starting with a boneless, skinless fillet, dry it with paper towels, slather with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and place it in a hot cast-iron skillet until it is well browned on one side. Then turn the fillet over and slide the skillet into a 350-degree preheated oven for 15 minutes. Test with a fork to be sure it’s done all the way through and serve. A simple lemon butter sauce with fresh-chopped dill or fennel is enough to lend rockfish all the sophistication that a fine palate could demand. My favorite accompaniments are Eastern Shore Silver Queen sweet corn and some thickly sliced fresh tomato from the same locale, dressed with olive oil, salt, ground pepper and fresh basil. A bottle of chilled champagne would not be gilding the lily. White perch is another seafood treasure from the Bay. Seldom encountered in area markets, white perch caught commercially in Maryland are mostly sent out of state. Apparently the Maryland markets are skewed toward rockfish. However, if you are even a modest angler you can secure yourself some of the finest frying fish in existence. The perch are small; a 10-incher is a big one. However, they are found in great numbers in the Bay and tributaries and, allowing for three fish per person, the average angler usually can secure a fine dinner in no time at all. Carefully fillet and skin the fish, cutting each fillet into two equal-sized portions. Blot the fish pieces dry with paper towels and dip in a mixture of two beaten eggs, two tablespoons flour, salt, pepper and a bit of beer (enough to create a syrupy mixture). Then roll the coated pieces in a shallow dish heaped with Japanese panko crumbs. Accumulate the prepared fish pieces on a large plate. Then heat a heavy skillet — again I prefer cast-iron — with about an inch of peanut oil (corn oil works almost as well) to about 350 to 400 degrees. With tongs settle the pieces of fish in the hot oil, turning them when they are golden brown. Hold the completed fish in a warm oven while you make a simple tartar sauce from chopped cornichons (about eight or nine), olive oil mayo (I like Hellman’s) and the juice of one-quarter lemon. You can also provide some dipping sauces. Texas Pete Buffalo Wing Sauce is a good one if you like it spicy, lemony vinaigrette if you’re of a gentler palate. I prefer an India pale ale to accompany the meal, but ice tea or a good, chilled white wine will go well. Provide plenty of napkins as this feast invites hands-on dining.

White perch are ready to bite

White perch are ready to bite

The day had turned ideal, overcast with virtually no wind and a full flood tide. I was busy tying on a bright-colored, one-sixth-ounce spinner bait and, while I couldn’t see my buddy Moe in the bow, I could hear him grunt, “Another one … bigger than the last.” I hurried to pull my knot tight. Of course in my haste I botched the operation and had to cut the lure off and start over.
    After getting the knot right, I was soon tight to a spunky white perch, the most delicious fish in the Chesapeake. The day had instantly become much brighter in spite of that thick cloud cover and our earlier experience.
    The trip we had planned, chumming for rockfish, had become impossibly difficult despite a good start. We had a nice fish in the box in the first 15 minutes; then the bite had died. For a long while we were patient. Then the tide went weird.
    Three hours after the turn was scheduled, the current continued to come in at a dead crawl. Our anchored skiff wandered. Meager, gusting winds sent us first one way, then another. The lines tangled and our baits went unmolested. We tried to persevere, but the awful conditions persisted.
    “Welcome to the Chesapeake Bay, home of the impossible tides,” I said as we separated the intertwined lines of a couple of outfits. Most other boats had gone.
    “You suppose they know something we don’t?” I asked.
    “You mean, like this is a total waste of time?” Moe answered.
    He suggested heading for a more southern shore, a place where we had in previous seasons enjoyed some good fishing for white perch.
    “I’m not sure they are in the shallows there yet,” I said. “The frigid winter made everything so late this year.”
    “So how could that be worse than this?” he asked, as we pulled our Danforth and put our chumming gear away.
    The couple of perch rods we had packed now looked like our salvation.
    After a bit of a run we moved, as quietly as we could go, within casting distance of a rocky, tree-shrouded shoreline studded with stone jetties. I spiked my Power Pole shallow-water anchor into the bottom, and our skiff skidded to a stop. My partner had his rod already rigged so he was quick into action. His first cast answered the big question: The perch are here.
    Just about all white perch feel big for the first few seconds after hooking up, but after that it’s only the larger, thicker, black-backed perch that can keep a sustained bend in a light rod and make the battle a test of wills. With the perch’s delicate mouth structure, an educated hand becomes very helpful in getting a big one into the boat.
    There were lots of throwbacks but among them enough 10-inchers along the shoreline to accumulate a decent-sized fish fry.
    We ate well the next afternoon.

Tie right to stop losing big fish

In the decade-plus I have worked at a local sports store, I have swapped many yarns about losing big fish. The recurring theme is broken lines.
    Odd, I once thought. Of all the fish I’ve lost, and believe me that number is considerable, there have been very few that simply broke me off. Now I’m not counting the rascals that cornered the line across a concrete bridge pier or a barnacle-studded dock piling, threaded themselves through submerged rubble or wrapped off on my engine. I mean fish that broke the line by hard pulling.
    How long had the line been on their reels, I wondered. The short story is monofilament line in use over two seasons is not to be relied upon. The line might still seem stout enough, but knot strength is always the first thing to degrade and the main culprit in any break-off.
    If the line was fresh but the setup had been used a number of times, had landed a lot fish and had always held up, I had an easy answer: Your setup just wore itself out. You can’t expect those knots to last forever. Repeated stress will eventually weaken the line‘s structure. The knots have to be renewed, and the more frequently you stress your line, the more frequently the knots should be retied.
    If the angler had freshly made the setups, I would inquire if the end of the line where it failed had a little curlicue shape, like a pig’s tail. That curlicue is the sign of an improperly tied knot slipping free. If there was a piece of mono handy, I could even duplicate the event.
    If none of the above, I would ask the angler to tie the knot for me. Then I would put the hook in a vice and give the line a substantial pull. The connection would usually fail far below the breaking strength of the line. Or it would simply slip out.

Knot Up
    If your knots are in danger of failing, the solution is simplicity.
    Attempt to learn a dozen good knots at once and you’ll remember none.
    The better way to begin is by choosing just one knot, practice tying it several times and stick with it until you can do it without thinking.
    The knot I suggest for starters is the improved clinch knot, sometimes called the fisherman’s knot. It is the knot I most frequently use for tying my line to hooks and lures, and it is probably the most popular knot in use today.
    Only after mastering this knot should you progress to learning others. I suggest the Palomar next. It is one of the stronger and easier-to-tie connections, but its application is limited. The shortcoming will become obvious as you learn to tie it.
    The next in importance is the barrel knot for tying two sections of line together, a leader to the main line for instance.
    Others knots are useful in certain circumstances, but the point is to learn and master one at a time.
    One more thing: Always moisten the line with saliva (for lubrication) when pulling it tight. Otherwise heat from the friction of the knot tightening will weaken the line.
    Another thing: If you’re intent on landing the next big fish you hook, replace your line often and begin each outing by cutting off the hook or lure, discarding the first 15 feet of line (it gets the most wear), replacing your leader (if you use one) and retying your knots. Examine each bend closely upon completion. If they don’t look perfect, cut them off and tie them again. Your lost fish ratio due to break-offs will plummet. I guarantee it.

Sometimes it takes fish to catch fish

Chumming is one of the simplest and most effective methods of getting a limit of rockfish this time of year. The fish have just schooled up and are hungry from spring spawning. Here’s how it worked for me one recent June morning.
    I try to be careful when I get a bite when chumming, immediately easing the reel clicker off to eliminate any resistance on the line, thumbing the spool lightly as I remove the rod from its holder and letting the fish run off a bit before setting the hook.
    But this guy just grabbed my bait and ran, setting the reel to screaming and hooking himself before I could even touch the rod. By the time I got the rod under control, the powerful striper had the line over its shoulder and was headed for the horizon.
    As we arrived at Hackett’s Bar at the mouth of the Severn, 30 or so boats were scattered off the big green can marking the edge of the channel, waiting for the bite to begin.
    We had already investigated a number of alternate locations (Podickery, the Bay Bridge and Dolly’s Lump) after launching our skiff at Sandy Point State Park that morning. Having found no promising marks on our fish finder, Hackett’s was our best and last hope.
    I wanted to be off the water before 11am, when the mass of non-fishing recreational boaters shows up on weekends, turning the waters into a washing machine of conflicting wakes. It would turn out to be very close.
    Dropping anchor, we noted the charter boat Becky D sitting nearby. That was a good sign. Ed Darwin is an experienced skipper, and if he was in the area, we probably couldn’t have chosen any better.

Setting Up for the Chum Bite
    Setting up in 35 feet of water, I lowered our weighted chum bag — a gallon of frozen, ground menhaden — over the side and tied it off on a cleat at about the 15-foot level. Many anglers hang their bags over the stern near the surface, but I’ve found that having the chum source nearer the bottom can bring the fish in closer so that they can more easily find our baits, particularly when the current is running strong.
    Our rods are rigged with fish-finder rigs, sliding nylon sleeves on the main line with an integral snap for our two-ounce sinkers. The main line is tied to a swivel that acts as a slider stop, followed by three feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader tied to the hook.
    We used 7/0 Mustad super sharp live-bait hooks. That large size is necessary because we were using big pieces of bait. Our menhaden were cut in vertical pieces about two inches wide, from large, fresh fish. When a striper picks up the bait and moves off, the line will slide through the sleeve where the sinker is attached. The fish will not feel its weight.
    For a good, solid hook set, feed line into the run and give the fish a few seconds to get the meal well back in its mouth before striking. Striking too early will often pull the menhaden chunk out of the fish’s mouth, especially with the large baits we use to attract larger fish.
    Change baits every 20 minutes to keep the scent trails fresh and the baits attractive. Rather than discarding the old pieces of menhaden, we cut them into smaller chunks and distribute them widely into the current to further encourage the rockfish to feed aggressively.


•   •   •
    Our first fish that hit that morning turned out to be the largest of the trip, a fat male that weighed about 15 pounds. We limited out by 11:30am with three more fish in the 10-pound range.

Some days, they listen
It was an ideal morning at Hacketts Bar (38° 51'; 76° 25'). A flood tide was just making up, a gentle southerly wind caressed the waters and the sun was hidden by a thin cloudbank that permitted just the right amount of warmth to permeate the air. 
 
The anchored fishing boats were strung out more or less in a line from just off of the green can in 25 feet of water due east to depths of 40 or more feet. We had anchored up in the middle, our chum bag trailing from a stern cleat and our baits settling nicely. Within minutes, we had action. 
 
My fishing partner was Vince Ransom who had accompanied his wife, Tarin Fuller, down to Annapolis from their art gallery, Iandor Fine Arts, in the Ironbound area of Newark, New Jersey. They were spending a few days with my sculptor wife and me in an artists’ meeting combined with a bit of fishing.
 
Vince once lived on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, becoming an insatiable angler, but he had been unable to continue his sport since moving to New Jersey. I hoped to help him remedy that.
 
We had four rods out using cut menhaden for bait. His was the first to go down. I netted a nice seven-pounder for him a few minutes later, and his long fishless spell was finally broken. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,” he said. His demeanor had changed, his whole frame relaxing, his face beaming.
 
Usually when you’re trying to show someone an especially good time on the Bay, things don’t go the way you planned. This time was different. Vince must have had a pile of charitable acts banked in his karma bin because his baits were seldom without some kind of attention from the rockfish.
 
We had several throwbacks and a few shorts, but we released all the fish under 23 inches and little by little we accumulated some very nice rock in our cooler. For the last fish, we chose to hold out for over 30 inches. That strategy is often self-defeating and this time appeared no exception. The bite stalled. 
 
We made to pull up our gear when I had a good run. I missed the strike, but we stayed put, thinking a new school of fish was arriving. But nothing happened until we made ready to move yet again. Vince immediately had a strong fish on, but the hook pulled.
 
Our remaining bait was running low with all the attention from the throwbacks, and we were also running out of time. But I believed Vince had some special juju, and we were going to capitalize on it or go home short a fish.
 
By this time getting a bite with every decision to move had become a running joke. We began threatening a move whenever we had gone a while without something nosing our baits. Eerily, a bite or a fish (though not a keeper) was almost always the result.
 
Finally, with just a chunk or two of menhaden left, I called out over the stern: “This is the very last time. We are going to go, and we need a big fish, not one of these little guys you’ve been sending us. And we need it right now, or we really are going home.”
 
I know that sounds silly. But what is more preposterous is that Vince’s rod promptly bent over in the holder, line screaming off the reel. Fifteen minutes later I netted a gleaming, 34-inch striped bass fat as a fireplug, the biggest fish landed on my boat this year.
 
If you’ve been on the water long enough, you know that peculiar things can happen.